Thursday, 12 April 2012

In Search of a Guru

Guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
With the project complete and my body healing from the latest round of illnesses, I was eager to move on. Auroville had been an incredible experience for me but the heat of south Indian summer was beginning to be unbearable. One of the most important lessons I had learned in Sadaha Forest was to understand and take care of my own needs. The other I learned at the Shiva temple: the importance of creating space, a gap for the universe to manifest. Up to this point I had committed to a plan to continue to travel north India with Liz. Post Sadhana, something was telling me to go it alone. So I took a deep breath, wrote her a long email setting out my intention to take a solo, unscheduled path up through India for the remaining time I had. I already knew that too much planning equated to too much ‘control’ over the situation - entirely in contrast to the ‘surrendering’ purpose of my trip. And it had already been proven to me that if I stepped back, released the reigns and allowed the universe space, it would provide me with everything I needed.

Then along came Lynda.

Lynda posing in our little bedsit
A fellow Sadhana volunteer, this beautiful creature first came to my attention in one of the community sharing circles where she had described a delightful example of living in the moment – watching dragonflies flitting on the surface of the pool. I felt kinship with her in the forest and now that she was out she had found me and Sunshine. I had previously felt called to go to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s ashram, having discovered quite by chance a book of his words in Jaisalmer and been told that I would love the Art of Living, way back in the Sivananda ashram . Lynda was also compelled to go and so we met in Bangalore.

All dressed up for Sri Sri
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s ashram is way out on the outskirts of the city so we took a room in the nearby house of a local Indian man.  It was an interesting dynamic – he slept outside in the communal area and had no respect for our privacy whatsoever, wandering in and out of the bedroom despite whatever de-robed state we may be in, even clambouring aboard the bed to fix the fan while I slept. You have to love Indian concepts of personal space. Keen to see the ashram and attend one of its legendary satsangs, Lynda and I made our way to the vast grounds on our first evening there. We were greeted with large scale sculptures of swans, a meditation hall in the shape of a many tiered wedding cake and the obligatory devotees wandering around in white. Disturbingly, several of these men had started an interesting physical transmogrification in taking on the physical attributes of the Guru. This meant that we kept seeing Sri Sri lookalikes everywhere wandering around the Disneyland esque dreamscape. At times I felt as if I could be in a David Lynch movie.

The concert of 1,000 veenas
That first night we were coerced into taking an ‘Art of Living’ course but it didn’t go smoothly. In order to take advantage of the cheaper rates (the ashram-stay courses were in in excess of $200), we had to commute into the city. Cue enormous amounts of stress, the obligatory rip-off by rickshaw drivers and a physically exhausting late night journey that culminated in us trudging along the busy roadside in pitch dark, avoiding the blare of buses and trucks. Our patience was worn down to the thinnest thread. We both agreed that the stress of the commute outweighed any happiness of doing the course and resolved to get out of it. 

Close up of the veena players
But in order to extricate ourselves from the course, we had to contend with the self-righteous and rather pushy attitude that I have come to realise characterises guru worshippers. We engaged in several length and exhausting conversations with one volunteer in which he tried every trick to pursuade us to stay on the course. Ignoring his pleas we instead negotiated another ridiculous 3hr trek across town to watch a music concert ; however, this time it was worth it. We got to see 1,000 veenas (one of the oldest stringed instruments in the world) being played simultaneously. And better still Sri Sri was there. Zephyr-like in white robes, he was ensconced on a throne at the top of the hall- but the minute we arrived he spirited himself away out of sight, evading our stares. We felt that he was teasing us.

Sri Sri in satsang
The unique musical experience, combined with our actual sighting of Sri Sri marked a turn of events for the better. The following day things began to run smoothly - I managed to procure a much-sought after train ticket up north. Lynda and I couldn't help thinking that we had been tested by Sri Sri and passed. He approved. On that day we were actually able to take darshan with him, which means that we met him face to face. After an hour or so queuing and sitting around with 1,000 other expectant Indians, Sri Sri was ushered out, surrounded by attendants who batted off the uber-devotional who  were assaulting him with a barrage of gifts. Unsure of the protocol, I simply bowed my head and allowed him to touch it with a white rose as he passed, saying 'Jai Guru Dev'. Lynda was much more fortunate. Kneeling quietly on the floor, she had touched his feet as he passed. As she did so she felt an electric current pass through her - afterwards when she looked at me her eyes were wide, astonished. She clasped both my hands in hers and I could feel the electric energy entering my hands. They stayed like that for the entire evening. Although I was sad that I had not managed to touch Sri Sri him myself, I was grateful for the divine experienced that I had received through Lynda. 

Inside the wedding cake: devotees in satsang
That night we dressed for satsang - making ourselves look gorgeous for the guru - as I'm sure many devotees have done before us! After the experience of feeling God through sri Sri's feet - my focus was sharper. I could see the beauty of the flowering bouganvillea in the pinky dusk of the setting sun. The world looked new and fresh again. Satsang in the meringue wedding cake building was a lovely experience. 

Sri Sri attended and, after our devotional singing, answered questions from devotees in a frank and open manner - translating his answers into Hindi, English and sometimes even Tamil. All of his words were succinct, perfectly appropriate and good humoured. He told us that we are all flames of light, it's just that sometimes we become covered in ash. The thing to do is to blow away the ash..."phooop!"...he pretended to effortlessly blow the ash away, in delight. When one man asked him: "why did god create the universe?" Sri Sri answered "why do we watch cricket?". " Entertainment" the man answered. Sri Sri shrugged, smiling. What a great answer - we all laughed. At the end of satsang, a wave of playfulness seemed to sweep over the guru as he danced out of the room - impishly and mischieviously... I might even go so far as to say it was camp! This is my favourite memory of that day and recalling it, I am suddenly grinning from ear t ear. For me that is what Sri Sri brings up in me - nothing but smiles, happiness, joy and peace. 

The wedding cake meditation hall in the Art of Living ashram
Although not a great deal actually happened in Bangalore, the effect of it was powerful. Once again my patience and tolerance levels were tested severely and I was proud of the way in which I handled several stressful situations with a new state of calm. In giving myself pause, I discovered a lot about myself. I realised that I was still undergoing healing from past relationships. The connection with Lynda was profound. Lots of things came up for us that was common ground and we whiled away many hours in the one little local cafeteria in the village, ruminating on life, relationships, books and our life journeys. It seemed to me another strange coincidence that Lynda hailed from America (as all of the people who I connected with deeply on this trip have) and we discussed the possibility of my visiting California, to undertake some organic farming (WOOFING) - another theme that keeps coming up. Was I being called there? 

I love the cake
Lynda had been newly initiated into the practice of guided meditation and so one day she led me in a session. I know this is about to sound strange, even to the most open-minded of readers, but please bear with me on this one. In spirit I met with various guides – including a Catholic priest from my childhood and Sir Paul McCartney who told me that I would meet a man called Steven – "writing abroad"...On my second day in Rishikesh, by total chance I met a man in the street named Steve – a journalist, writing abroad. Also a Shiva devotee, he loves khirtan and, like me, is an NVC graduate. We quickly formed a very special connection - not of the romantic variety, but Steven would become my 'sattvic' or spiritual travelling companion for the next 7 days. Yet another step in my journey, another pillar along the path. 

Sri Sri giving darshan - he is in focus, everyone else is blurred! 
And so it was, that, in the space of a week I felt God through a through a guru's feet, met one of the Beatles in spirit and had the most extraordinary affirmation of my spiritual 'abilities' in the form of a 49 year old Shaiavite. Dear god, what would the old Sophie say to all of this madness?? But there would be time for processing. By the banks of the holy Mother Ganga in Rishikesh, the home of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, appropriately enough. And so on that happy note, I'll leave you with one thought that reminds me of Sri Sri (and Sir Paul of course...) All together.. "all you need is love, da da da da daaa, all you need is love, da da da da daaa, all you need is love, love, love is all you need...." 

Monday, 9 April 2012

Chasing Rainbows With Sunshine

Alex the Shiva devotee
Other than to let the Universe decide my fate, I had no plan. And so I got a ride out of Sadhana Forest with two lovely volunteers  and went with them to the village of Kuilapalayam: a favourite hangout of forest-dwellers desperate for a sugar, chocolate or cold coffee fix to offset the vegan frugality. As we trundled along the dusty track through the Aurovillean villages we reminisced about Alex the Shiva devotee who had also decided to move on. I had met him one particularly despondent Sunday when, unsolicited, I plopped myself down next to him in the kitchen on the floor amongst the vegetable scraps and began a long soliloquy on loneliness and intimacy. Alex looked at me with his bright eyes and communed with me with such grace, tenderness and understanding. It was only after much later that I thought to ask him his name.  I remained very close to Alex for the rest of my time in Sadhana, feeling deeply connected to him and seeing him as a sort of spiritual mentor. On this day I realised that in my haste to leave, I hadn’t said goodbye to him or taken his contact details. But I had faith that the universe wanted me to meet with him again. As the taxi pulled up outside Kofi Bar, I began to laugh – there was Alex. “I was just thinking of how I didn’t say goodbye, but I knew I would see you again” were his first words to me.

A happier me: doing karma yoga in Auroville 
After my dramatic departure, I had no vision of what I wanted to do, although somehow felt a calling to uncover more about Auroville. I was fascinated by the concept of the place (for background of this true 'one-off' of a city read my ‘Surrendering in Pondicherry’ blog) and was keen to get under the skin of it – although I had been warned that it is a “difficult nut to crack”. Tourists aren’t really welcome as most communities are busy getting on with their work. According to its charter Auroville is a place for “servitude to the divine consciousness” I felt the call to undertake more karma yoga (selfless service) and contribute in some way whilst there.

Painting the murals with Sunshine
There were several other ex Sadhana people in Kofi bar that day, including a girl called Sunshine that I had met briefly and given a reiki treatment to. Perhaps this was the reason why I felt an energetic connection with her – either that or her perennial warmth or (appropriately) sunny smile. She had also left Sadhana early and had noticed a park in Kulapalayam – a beautiful space but it was literally covered in trash and the toilets were unclean and giving off a stench. There was one toy in there. No children. No families.  Sunshine is an artist and had the idea to paint the toilet buildings, which were beautifully wrought but from brown, faded brick. So she took the initiative, spoke with a few locals, elders and the manager of Kofi Bar and suggested that she paint up the toilets with bright murals. They warmly embraced the idea, Sunshine bought the paints and she was off to start the project when I arrived. As this was a chance to do some karma yoga, I eagerly offered to pitch in and so it was that I became involved in the ‘Chasing Rainbows’ project.

Me and my gorgeous neighbours in the village
Meanwhile, with the help of Markus, a guy I met who was also in the coffee bar that same day, I procured a room in Sunshine's guesthouse in a small village by the sea – a bamboo attic from which I could hear the sounds of the waves and in the morning, the villagers waking before dawn to sing bhajans, wash pots and build fires in the cool of the still-darkness - the rising wood smoke rousing me from my slumber. I also got myself a scooter – invaluable for bezzing around Auroville which is a sprawling orb of farming communities radiating out from around the golden meditation ball and spiritual centre, the Matrimandir. At night I would drive in the pitch dark (power cuts were frequent and almost half hourly) through the dust, narrowly avoiding sleeping Indians in the road, goats, dogs and cows. Every morning, the women would draw a brand new, unique kollam outside their house in chalks and coloured powder to usher in a new day.

The Team painting rainbow murals
As with seemingly everyone I met in this period, I had a connection with Markus who possessed extraordinarily intuitive abilities. On my second night in the guest house we took a walk to the ocean and sat in the moonlight. Markus seemed to be able to read me very well and we discussed some of the fear that he perceived came attached to my blossoming spiritual abilities.  As we turned back on the sand path to the guesthouse, Markus asked me to look at the waves, crashing under the full moon, to connect and let my fear flow out of me. One day he drove me out of town on the back of his Royal Enfield (the thing to do in Tamil Nadu). As he drove at great speed in the madness of Indian traffic, I – filming from the back, could only grip on with one hand. In situations of danger like this, I often call on reiki to protect me and keep me safe and so, with my eyes I drew a symbol on his back. Later on he asked me: “what was that symbol of white light you put into my back when we were driving”? I couldn’t believe he had picked up on that secret act of protection. And so the guest house was a hub of warmth and bright people, including a beautiful and spiritual Israeli woman who gave me my first ‘watsu’ healing (underwater shiatsu) – a peaceful and bright healing experience.

Pyramid Shiva temple at Dune beach 
Gabriella the Israeli was also responsible for dispensing various gems of wisdom of both the worldly and the spiritual nature and for me and Sunshine the presence of three strong shakti (feminine) energies was a powerful and beautiful dynamic. One day we visited a special Shiva temple in the form of a pyramid and sat three in a row in front of the deities singing mantras together. The acoustics of the building were such that – although we were only three – the vibrations were of an entire choir of angels singing to Lord Shiva.  Gabriella had told me that although Shiva is mostly associated with violence and destruction he is also about silence and space – the calm after the storm, the silence immediately preceeding shoots of new growth. This creation of silence and space was a new concept for me. If you allow space, silence and time you create a gap for the universe to manifest. Again, it was about surrendering control and allowing destiny to take it's course. 

The trash that had been littering the park
- sadly not an uncommon sight in India
Meanwhile I had got involved with Chasing Rainbows with a vengeance. One morning, Sunshine reminded me that during her reiki healing two weeks previously, I had had strong visions of a slide in none other than a children’s park! Another ‘coincidence’? I think not..We spent time painting up the walls of the public toilets with rainbows, a rising sun, mountains, flowers, a moon and stars. The next problem to tackle was the trash – which, after Sunshine had started to paint – had mysteriously all been gathered up from the floor and placed into a mountain at the back of the park. We felt that a magical force was on our side..

Chasing Rainbows flyer
Under the direction of a local, Sunshine and I visited the Village Action Group in charge of instigating change and getting things done at village level – only to be told that Kulapalayam is the only place in the whole of Auroville that no longer has a group, due to politics and conflict amongst the people. Relations had apparently got so bad that there had been murders. Despite Auroville’s spiritual mandate, the rape that had taken place near Sadhana Forest had proven the existence of this dark undercurrent in our adoptive home. The Village Action Group sent in the direction of the lady who had originally built the park (with her own bare hands) twenty years prior. Sunshine and I drove our scooters out to her workshop and met this fabulous lady who had been incredibly proactive with the park for all this time but was unable to engender enthusiasm in others to help her to continue to maintain its upkeep. She spoke of ‘tamas’ – the inertia or lack of dynamacism in traditional village cultures where sun rises and sun sets. In such places there little enthusiasm for change. Therefore it had not been easy to get local people to support her in her project and herein lay the problem: the impetus had to come from the heart of the community.

Auroville village
She was painfully aware of the current situation, but with other commitments, unable to go it alone. The current situation with the trash required a landfill to be organised but there were no vehicles available due to it being cashew harvesting season and therefore all lorries were in use. She told us that she had been praying for help and then we arrived. It seemed auspicious. Sunshine and I resolved to get the painting finished and to help her to try and secure help in the form of volunteers to ensure that the facility for keeping the park clean and trash free would be in place going forward - thus keeping the space clean and safe for long after we had gone.

However, sadly not everyone shared our enthusiasm and during our exhaustive quest for help from other Aurovilliean communities Sunshine and I incurred some ill-feeling from people who clearly felt that, as transient, Western visitors, we were not in a position to understand the complexities of the ongoing politics that had gone before. Some even felt that the rainbows we had painted were a construct of a European imagination and would not resonate with Tamil people. We were told that if we wanted to become agents of real change we should donate to ‘real’ charities that were doing ‘real’ work. We encountered other Westerners who were facilitating projects in the local community and engaged with them on lengthy dialogues as to how people like us can really get involved and ‘give back to India’. We went back to Sadhana forest to consult Aviram on how best to proceed. With compassion, he told us that our intentions were beautiful but pointed out many aspects of curation of the project that we had not considered. His belief was that to become real agents of change, we must commit ourselves to the project for 3 years or more.  Both following different callings, Sunshine and I were unable to commit.  

Painting with contribution from the locals
We were slightly deflated, but felt that the experience had been eye opening, a real education and a unique insight into the machinations of Aurovillean politics and we resolved to have a completion of sorts before we moved on. After all, the opinions of those who were not entirely supportive of the project lay in contrast to the experiences we had had with the villagers – who appeared delighted at the murals, came along to help, observe and contribute to the artwork every day - to bring their children, to share chai with us. These moments, which were authentic and beautiful, kept our faith that we were making some difference in the village. 

Shakti love: me and Sunshine
Illness had once again dogged my path. One theory expounded by Steph, the long termer who had healed me in the Forest is this often happened to those who had departed the forest early. When there was more spiritual or healing ‘work’ to be done, the body often gave in and rendered itself immobile to allow the seeker to finish the work. And so I took it easy in Kuilapalayam, made peace with Sadhana with several visitations back there and had some wonderful experiences in surrounding Auroville - in the process forming a deep bond with Sunshine. Through her I got to learn the value of positivity, affirmations, thoughts and gratitude. And it wasn’t all spiritual doo-dah, we had a laugh together, had lots of girly fun, chats and even shared a room by the end of it all. I slept well next to her energy. She was a real light in my world.

The coconut seller was drafted in with his machete
However, the project hung over our heads, unresolved. On our second to last day in Kuilapalayam we dragged ourselves out of the guest house and took ourselves off to the park to paint with a heavy heart. And suddenly – the villagers were there again! Wanting input into the painting, advising us on how the stars and moon should look, one little boy even insisted on finishing off the mural and covering the mountains in flowers. We had managed to get hold of some tyres to make swings and the elders of the village all convened to assist. We had no scissors to cut the rope but that was OK because the local coconut seller was drafted in to provide his machete for the purpose. 

Inaugural swing! 
You should have seen the ingenuity of these village men, who got the tyre swings hung in a blink of an eye. And then they all took an inaugural swing, to great hoots of delight and laughter - middle aged and elderly men swinging in their dhotis. Then some local boys came to play and test drive the swings. It was a moment full of happiness and joy. The elders were very protective of the swings and one of them assured us that he would continue to watch over the park, keeping the spare rope Sunshine had bought in his home in case anyone tried to cut it down. Looking back at the park in the fading dusk, it looked so inviting - fresh, colourful and ready to welcome children to play. 

Local boy enjoying the new swings
A while later in Rishikesh, I opened my inbox to have received this email from Steph: "Just thought I would tell you I was in Kuilapalayam yesterday and stopped off to have a look at the kids park. It was full of families and kids enjoying themselves. I felt really touched by your efforts and was so glad to see the park in use for a change". Good karma, positivity, hard work and faith had won out. Thank you, Sunshine for shining a light into my life, helping me to realise the power of dreams and to inspire me to chase rainbows, no matter how big or small. 

Sunshine with her work of art 

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